Re-Animator: The Musical – Q & A
Thanks again to Green Galactic as well as to Stuart Gordon, Graham Skipper, Jesse Merlin, and Rachel Avery for being so generous as to take time from their busy performance schedules on Re-Animator: The Musical to answer a few questions!
Q.As Herbert West you get to play a character…with an askew view on life and death. How did you find yourself in such an enviable role in Stuart Gordon’s musical production?
Graham Skipper. Well, it’s a long, weird story, but to tell the short version…I write and perform in a comedy troupe in New York City called FUCT, and George Wendt is a big fan and supporter of ours. As a result of that, he’s also become a good friend, and one day when I was in Las Vegas on vacation, George calls me out of the blue, says he’s doing a reading of Re-Animator the Musical and would I want to audition to play Herbert West. I’m a huge horror fan and have been a big fan of the film and of Stuart’s for a long time, so I of course jumped at the chance and drove from Vegas to audition for Stuart and Mark Nutter. And now, here I am! I’m really lucky – this role is amazing and like you said totally enviable. I couldn’t think of a better show or role to be cast in.
Q.I believe Jeffrey Combs who played Herbert West in the 1985 film attended a performance of the show, did you and he have a chance to share any humorous stories of work in the theatre?
Graham Skipper. Yeah, he was there opening night! Him, Barbara Crampton, and Bruce Abbott were all there sitting together – it was really surreal. He was very nice and said that he loved the show and kept commenting how strange it was for him and Bruce and Barbara to see words and actions that they created being immortalized in this new incarnation, 25 years later. He said the weirdest parts were the bits of dialogue and stage business that they essentially improvised on set, to see them not only done by different people but in different ways. The biggest compliment he gave me, though, was when he said to me, “You’re Herbert now, the stage is yours.” What an awesome experience.
Q.I asked Chris McKeena what his thoughts were on the relationship between Dan Cain and Herbert West, what are your feelings on the matter? Why does Dan constantly follow Herbert’s plans of perfecting the reanimation formula…besides the fact that we know is Herbert West is right? Ha, ha.
Graham Skipper. That’s a good question, and I think ultimately it lies at the heart of the story. Herbert has never been one to have “friends,” so to speak, so the fact that he entrusts Dan with this kind of information and goes down this road with him (as opposed to alone) really speaks to Dan’s character. I believe that over the short time that he lives with Dan, he starts to see in him the spark of curiosity, the drive to excel, and the desire to save lives regardless of what protocol says…all traits Herbert shares. West is certainly practical, and he understands that he will need an assistant to achieve all the goals he has in mind, so who better than Cain, who he not only lives with but who he can feasibly convince to join his cause. Of course, throughout the show, this transforms into a true friendship, and really the only one Herbert’s ever had – it’s an important moment in Herbert’s life.
As to why Dan keeps following Herbert deeper and deeper through the rabbit hole? I think you’re right, it’s because he knows Herbert is right! Ultimately Herbert’s goal is to defeat death – we sing “We’ll give life, life like a flower, life like an earthquake/ We will cure, we will inspire, this is our calling/ We’ll achieve what doctor’s only dream about – no disease will stop us,” and that’s a pretty poignant thing for them to say together. They are pursuing the ultimate cure, and Dan understands the value of life and how even if you have to break the rules to achieve that goal, it’ll be worth it. I think he maintains trust in Herbert, and Herbert in turn maintains respect for Dan – something he doesn’t give to anybody else. That’s a powerful partnership, and sadly one that must end in tragedy. But hey, at least, as Herbert says at the end of the show, “I was right.”
Q.Would you mind telling our readers how you found yourself in the role of the highly intelligent though some would say morally lacking Dr. Hill?
Jesse Merlin. I starred as the President in a show at the Steve Allen Theater back in ’06 called “The Beastly Bombing,” a light-hearted comedy about terrorism. Like Re-Animator, it was a cult sensation and ran for a year. I went with it to New York and later, to Amsterdam. Amit Itelman, the Artistic Director of the Steve Allen, had pushed for Stuart to consider me for the show. Knowing my age could be an issue, I showed up for my Dr. Hill audition in a suit, age makeup, and my best gray wig. Fortunately, the gamble worked and I got the role, but they could easily have thought me completely insane, and with some reason.
Q.Had you seen the 1985 film before you landed the part? What did you think when you realized you had to perform a musical in which at one point you are decapitated and have to carry your ‘head’ in your hands?
Jesse Merlin. Re-Animator has been a favorite since I first saw it at 18, and the first viewing is a cathartic and unforgettable experience for anyone. Playing Dr. Hill is a dream come true; I admire David Gale’s perfect performance in the film immensely and do my best to honor his iconic character without being too imitative. Honestly, I had no idea how exactly I’d be singing while decapitated, and becoming a bloodied puppeteer for the role has given me a new respect for that profession.
Q.Would you say that Dr. Hill realizes he is a villain or do you believe that he feels he is in the right and doesn’t see what he is doing is wrong?
Jesse Merlin. If anyone called Dr. Hill a villain to his face it would barely register. Trivial questions of morality and ethics have no place in his scientific and narcissistic mind. He’s a wonderfully fun and charismatic character to play because his driving forces are vanity and lust. Nothing matters to him besides acclaim (however fraudulently earned) and being a celebrated scientist. Well, nothing besides getting the girl; he has an insatiable obsession for the Dean’s young daughter Meg. One of my favorite things about Carl (his first name) is that he has the power of re-animation at his fingertips, and nothing stands in his way; the world is his for the taking. But the zombie apocalypse can wait. He’s gonna get the girl FIRST, and have his decapitated way with her down on a cold gurney in the morgue. You can’t help but love that kind of lubricious single-mindedness.
Q.You’ve done quite a bit of work on TV, everything from Joan of Arcadia to Big Love. How did you come to claim the part of Dan Cain’s love interest, Megan Halsey, for Stuart Gordon’s theatre production? Did you see the 1985 film before you obtained the role?
Rachel Avery. My manager got a call from Stuart for me to come in and audition. He had seen my picture in a costume designer’s “look book” and she recommended me…so I guess it was a bit of kismet.
No, I really didn’t know anything about the movie but I watched some clips on Youtube to see what it was all about and I was actually late for my audition because I could not stop watching.
Q.What are your thoughts on Meg’s view of Herbert West, it seems as if she is the only one that sees that Herbert might be more than a little dangerous.
Rachel Avery. I know! I feel like at some point I should turn to the audience and say “are you seeing what I’m seeing?!”
But I have actually thought about this quite a bit. In terms of the character, I think Meg is a very thoughtful, intellectual person who zeros in on something that is just “not right” about Herbert immediately because of the way she meets him. He almost comes across as some kind of addict – dark of night, money in his pocket, looking for a place to stay.
In terms of the overall story, Stuart and I talked a lot about the fact that Meg is truly Herbert’s character foil. She highlights his darkness through her light and ultimately fights him to the death for Dan’s soul…
Q.What upcoming projects do you have in the pipe when Re-Animator: The Musical finishes its run?
Rachel Avery. Aside from acting, which I love, I have also been working on a feature film as a writer/producer and it looks like it might go into production in January…fingers crossed.
Otherwise, I’m auditioning pretty regularly – actually I just got a job on an ABC Family Sitcom called State of Georgia because the producers and casting director came and saw our play! Now that has never happened to me before…a little kismet?
Q.First of all I must declare that I am not only a huge fan of the film version of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator that you directed in 1985 but of your body of film work in general, you and Brian Yuzna were single-handedly responsible for placing my feet firmly on the path of becoming a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan. Thank you very much for your time to answer these questions for our site.
I know that you started in theatre, and if my facts are correct it was the Organic Theatre Company in Chicago, which you founded with your wife in 1970. If you wouldn’t mind could you tell our readers what made you decide to bring Re-Animator to the stage?
Stuart Gordon. Thanks for your kind words, Vic. And yes, it is true that my wife Carolyn and I started the Organic Theater Company, but it was in 1969 (which makes us even older.) During my fifteen years as Artistic Director, the company (which included Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz and John Heard) created 35 original plays and adaptations, performed on and off-Broadway, and toured the United States and Europe. We also presented the world premieres of the work of exciting new playwrights, the best known being David Mamet.
I still follow the basic principles of the Organic: Theater is for everyone. Theater is fun. I also believe that anything you can do in a movie can be done onstage and better. Live theater is more exciting than film because it is actually happening right there in front of you. Everyone is all excited about 3D films but live theater is 4D and can affect all of your senses as well as actually interact with the audience. Theater is the only art form where the audience has a real role in shaping the experience.
So the idea of turning my own film RE-ANIMATOR into a musical seemed like a natural. And luckily I found a brilliant composer/lyricist in Mark Nutter and an amazingly talented cast and crew to bring it to life. Who wouldn’t want to see a decapitated head sing to the ingénue before he goes down on her? Who wouldn’t want to sit in the Splash Zone and get covered with viscera?
Q.For fans of your work and that of the always impressive Jeffrey Combs, is there a possibility of Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe being filmed? Also for those of us who are unable to travel to see the production in person have there been any discussions of producing a cast recording of Re-Animator: The Musical?
Stuart Gordon. In 2009 my friends Jeffrey Combs and Dennis Paoli and I created NEVERMORE, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. This idea also began as a film, an adaptation of THE BLACK CAT for the Showtime series MASTERS OF HORROR in which Poe himself was the protagonist. Jeffrey’s performance was so amazing that I began to believe I was actually hanging out with the original master of horror. And then the idea hit me – wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could let a live audience experience this and spend an evening in the company of this troubled genius?
NEVERMORE was presented for Poe’s bicentennial. What began as a four week run ended up as a six month hit, playing to sold-out houses and standing ovations. The following year we took the show on the road, beginning with a performance in Baltimore at Poe’s graveside.
The idea of filming it would be great fun, and it would be wonderful to shoot it in a 19th-century theater with the audience dressed as if they were attending one of Poe’s recitals in 1848.
I’m also looking forward to recording a cast album for RE-ANIMATOR The Musical as we get requests for it at every performance. And if I’ve learned anything in all these years, it’s that you have to give the audience what it wants.
A huge thanks again to Graham Skipper, Jesse Merlin, Rachel Avery, and of course Stuart Gordon for their time and kindness!